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An Exercise In Gratitude, or How To Train Your Demons
It’s basically a universally acknowledged fact that 2016 has been a rough year. From violent events, to celebrity deaths, to bitter political contention, and everything in between, it seems the year has taken its toll on everyone. And yet, so many people can point to positives in 2016 – clients landed, businesses launched, friends made, trips taken, lists accomplished, families strengthened, and other bright lights in the darkness.
I have not been immune to this roller coaster of emotion, of course. I can point to a number of successes – improved billables, wonderful clients, exciting trips, new speaking/teaching opportunities, joyful gatherings with new and old friends. Wonderful moments that left me beaming and feeling like I was on top of the world. But, like the icebergs we all struggle with in life, I’ve also been dealing with many, many low points that may have been less outwardly visible. Moments of doubt, of guilt, of berating myself, hating myself, loneliness, sadness, sobbing in the dark when everyone else is asleep.
The moment I realized I couldn’t ignore it anymore came during the week of the presidential election. It seemed to be a perfect storm of circumstances: A sudden cessation of urgent tasks as projects wrapped up after spending half the year overbooked with work. Relationship issues which left me feeling increasingly frustrated, sad, and anxious in my own home. Hormones. Boredom. Early winter darkness. Friends being busy and not wanting to bother them. And, like icing on a horrible cake, a bitter political climax that left social media, normally a harmless distraction from all my other feelings, reeling under an oppressive miasma of fear, anger, frustration, gloating, arguments, and pain.
I barely functioned that week. I made my calls, did the few tasks required of me, and managed to exercise and eat decent meals (when I remembered to eat). I even got out of the house a few times to lead meetings and events to which I had committed previously. But the majority of my days were spent in bed, sobbing, being consumed in several layers of fear. It was strangely convenient that half the country was also barely functioning as they processed their sociopolitical emotions, but that phenomenon merely surrounded me with other people’s fear at the time I needed just the opposite. The more I tried to acknowledge or confront my own fears alone, the deeper and scarier they got, amplified by everyone else’s fear, until they seemed to be inescapable and overwhelming.
As luck (or probably fate) would have it however, I had decided not long prior to begin a new habit of gratitude. I think a friend had nonchalantly shared something on Facebook stating that 21 days makes a habit, so why not post 3 things to be grateful for each day? I (acknowledging the fact that as a white, middle-class American female successfully working for myself in tech I’d probably have a lot to be grateful for on any given day) decided “what the heck?” and got started. It felt like a little oasis from all the flailing about everyone else was doing, in any case.
At first, it felt cute and a little bit trite, but I kept doing it because it made me smile (ok, and got me a little social validation on Facebook every day). But as I headed into this particular downward spiral, while continuing to post these thoughts of gratitude, I was suddenly struck by the strange dichotomy between my positive “public face” and the shit show that was actually going through my head.
It’s not the first time I’ve had this thought, and usually my reaction would be “cynical realism,” feeling that my happy social feeds were obviously a lie put out to curate whatever life experience I want people to see. But… then I realized, I truly did believe those things I was writing. They made me feel genuinely good. They touched on the same bright light inside me that shone when I figured out a new piece of code, or helped a client solve a difficult problem, or explored a new place on my bike. And at the very depths of my panic, I wondered why it was that I spent so much time existing so far away from that brightness.
By appearances alone, I was checking everything off the “take care of yourself” list: eat healthy, regular exercise, take breaks from work, get out of the house, see a therapist, go to medical appointments, check, check, and check. But I was still living under a fog of fear and anxiety that never quite lifted. On the good days, I could push it to the back of my mind during an exhausting workout, or an intense coding session, or when I got out of the house. But on the bad days, it ate away at my productivity, my desire, and my ambition. It told me I would fail, that I wouldn’t be good enough, smart enough, and gosh darn it, people wouldn’t like me.
Fear is a strange beast. Like many of our demons, it provides a useful service to us. Self-preservation, caution, preparedness, whatever we call it. And it does prevent us from wandering into the jungle at night, or eating poisonous berries, or whatever. I’ve been an anxious person my entire life (my mom used to refer to me as Telly monster, whom even wikis call “slightly neurotic,” when I was little) and have tried to harness that anxiety to make myself better. Fear of failure = drive to succeed, right? It seemed to be working on the surface, anyway, as I berated myself into learning more, being more involved, eating better, working out, etc. Check out all that success!
But unchecked fear also makes us do things that are illogical at best, and terrible at worst. We hold ourselves back from the things we could be doing. We lash out at others, whether as individuals, or with the collective power of a religion or political system. We hang back, we isolate ourselves, we don’t seek help, we refuse to realize our full potential because what-if-something-bad-happens. I empathize with the fear that causes us to be the way we are, I really do. I understand that a lot of hate, doubt, guilt, and anger comes from fear. But even though I appreciate that fear is powerful, I refuse to let it control my life anymore.
I’ve found myself in a unique mental place to be able to process and absorb a lot of life-changing thoughts in a short amount of time, and I’m not exactly sure yet where the pieces will land. But this exercise in gratitude has re-ignited my fire, and I’ve got more positive, optimistic energy burning inside me that I haven’t felt in a long time, and I refuse to let it die.
I’m sure I’ll have a follow-up post to come, probably just in time for the Mandatory Introspection Period known as the New Year. But I am dedicated now to pursuing gratefulness in the days to come, and refusing to settle for anything less than my best life, even if that seems scary.
Will you join me?
Credit for the featured image goes to Windstone Editions, who not only have a WooCommerce store apparently, but got much more of my money than I care to admit when I was a kid… because why not spend my hard-earned allowance on porcelain dragons?